The Vanished Library – Luciano Canfora

Luciano Canforia (trans. Martin Ryle), The Vanished Library, (U of CA Press, 1987)

This is a book that sincerely wants a map in its efforts to trace the history of the Library of Alexandria.

Major takeaway: there is astoundingly little information about the Library of Alexandria.  Scholars even debate exactly where it was in Alexandria (attached to the main palace? or nearer to the coast?) who started it (certainly Ptolemy II was King, but was it Aristotle or Demetrius who planted the idea), what was in it (See Callimachus below), when it was destroyed (probably several times between 46 B.C. and 642 A.D.), how big it was (estimates range from 40k to 400k), or even what it was exactly the word bibliothekai meant (“library” or “book shelf”? the latter explains why it is so hard to find where the books were precisely given the expectation of the former[77]).

Thesis of Book: it is very unlikely Caesar’s soldiers are responsible for the infamous burning of the Library. More likely, it was several separate fires and disasters over the course of a few centuries.

Points of Interest

  • Theophrastus, inheritor of the Aristotelean (Peripatetic) school, died and left his books to Neleus.  When Neleus was not elected as head of the school, he went home (Scepsis) and he took his ball with him (Aristotle’s library) and explicitly thwarted the efforts of the Egyptian King (Ptolemy II) to make copies of Aristotle’s library. Neleus is perhaps the most selfish man in history, and it is because of him Aristotle’s library does not survive today.
  • It’s been estimated that no comparable library would ever be compiled again until the 19th century.
  • Callimachus wrote a tremendous, 120 scroll treaty called the Catalogues. This book outlined his system for organizing the world’s largest library.  Unfortunately it is completely lost. The Catalogues are, in my opinion, the most important set of scrolls in the library. If there is any one set of scrolls to have saved, or duplicated, this would be it.  One can learn more from the titles of all the works in the library at Alexandria than one cane from the contents of any individual book or set of books.
  • The scholars who tended to the Library of Alexandria (Callimachus, Aristophanes, Demetrius) were not free to leave — they were prisoners to the books, much like grad students.
  • There is a huge connection between Ptolemy’s library and Judaism / preserving Jewish texts (23).  Ptolemy wanted a copy of everything written in the world — every book that came to his city was copied — this led to a significant increase in tolerance of Jews in Ancient Alexandria.  This was also the moment the Septuagint was miraculously translated.
  • The only library to rival Alexandria was the Library of Pergamum, which had a Harvard-Yale style rivalry with Alexandria that was mirrored in their different approaches to reading. Alexandrians were more interested in close reading, accurate translation, exposing forgeries, textual analysis, and setting into stone the meaning of words and works. At Pergamum, issues of textual doubt were mostly overlooked as anomalies — they were more interested in “‘hidden’ meaning, the meaning that lay ‘behind’ the classical, and especially the Homeric, texts – the ‘allegory.’ as they called it, concealed in these poems.” (49)
  • Parchment was invented in Pergamum because the Alexandrian’s wouldn’t sell them any papyrus for their scrolls.  The words are etymologically identical.

Favorite quotes:
1. Ptolemy made it a regular habit to ask advice of the Jewish scholars, whom he admired for their even-keeled responses always grounded on the logic of godliness.

2. Libraries are about POWER.  Libraries were originally inspired by world domination, putting whole new meaning to the old adage “knowledge is power.”

Macedonian arms had made the Greeks masters of the entire known world, from Sicily to North Africa, from the Balkan peninsula to Asia Minor, and from Iran and India to Afghanistan, where Alexander had halted.  They did not learn the languages of their knew subjects, but they realized that if they were to rule them they must understand them, and that to understand them they must collect their books and have them translated.  Royal libraries were accordingly created in all the Hellenistic capitals, not just for the sake of prestige but also as instruments of Greek rule. And the sacred books of the subjects had a special place in this systematic project of collection and translation, because religion was, for those who wished to rule them, a kind of gateway to their souls.

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